Cuban boxing returns to professional status with eyes on Olympics

Pro boxing in Cuba was banned for more than half a century. Photo: CNN

(CNN) - Cuba's once world-renowned boxing program is back in business for the first time in more than half a century, and they wasted no time in putting the nation's talents on display.

At Cuba's first professional boxing match in 52 years, lights, cameras and plenty of action were on display as the island nation took five straight bouts over Russian boxers.

Boxing in the blood of Cubans, and many fans said that the overhaul of their beloved sport was long overdue. Going pro means Cuban boxers now duke it out without shirts or headgear. They also now fight for five rounds rather than three.

"It's closer to being professional boxing," Cuban boxing fan Roberto said. "Before, the boxer's faces and heads had more protection and the fights weren't as good."

Following the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro banned professional sports. While the nation's athletes would excel at international competitions, such as the Olympics, they had to defect if they wanted to cash in on their talents. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island's sporting prowess was laid low.

Weakened by defections and a lack of resources, Cuba's legendary boxing program lost much of its punch. By overturning the ban on pro boxing, though, officials hope the island's fighters will regain some of its past glory.

In April, Cuba joined the fledgling World Series of Boxing, meaning that fighters receive a modest salary and have more opportunities to trade punches with other top boxers around the world. By doing so, they do not lose their eligibility to compete at the Summer Olympics.

"It allows us to give our boxers a better type of training," Cuban Boxing Commissioner Alberto Puig said. "We will be able to fight against the same boxers that we will fight in the Rio Olympics."